Military Drones: Early Years
Military drones, often officially referred to as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), first gained popularity during World War II. Back then, drones were viewed as being expensive and largely unreliable which is why their use was largely limited to the military sector alone. Drones started being used extensively in the army particularly in situations where a manned flight was considered too risky or difficult. Drones also provided the army with a significant advantage in terms of providing troops with an “eye-in-the-sky” 24/7.
Although the specifics are mainly classified, it is publicly known that both the United States and Russia used drones during the Cold War to spy on each other and perform unmanned surveillance to gain intelligence. Interestingly, the modern military drone revolution first began in 1982, when Israeli forces gained a significant advantage through using UAVs alongside manned aircraft to fight the Syrian fleet. This set an example for the rest of the world, and global interest in the use of military drones picked up tremendously. The U.S alone started investing millions of dollars in drones and began entering official contracts to build state-of-the-art UAVs.
Modern military drones are usually used for two reasons.
- Combat Surveillance: which is a fancy name for when a human pilot uses radio controls to fly the drone to different locations to see the position of the opponent.
- Tactical Reconnaissance: mostly used for taking images of important locations. Does not require a human pilot, flies to specific locations on autopilot mode.
However, military drones can be used for a large variety of purposes. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Uses of Military Drones
Live Video Footage: Having access to drone imagery and video footage can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to military operations. A drone can help save the lives military men and women by providing them live remote video communication with ground troops, gear, and weapons and also provide information on enemy location and position. This kind of sensitive intelligence can be priceless when conducting a military operation or taking down a threat.
Tracking: Reconnaissance of unknown areas or buildings is probably the most important benefit of military drones. Drones can be sent over, and important visual information can be collected regarding known areas and buildings. The footage can also be used to track the movements of the enemy/ opponent. The footage can be further utilized to ensure the safety of the troops by warning them in case the enemy is approaching or on the same path as them.
Searching: Modern military drones, with their advanced photography and videography capabilities, enable the military industry to get real-time access to footage of missions and situations allowing officials and commanders back in the camp to make better decisions in terms of the movement of the soldiers as well as resource allocation. Furthermore, the drones can be used for performing searches in different areas particularly to locate injured or lost soldiers.
Surveillance: The earliest drones were used primarily for surveillance. Drones can be used to not only locate but also spy on enemy campsites and headquarters to get a better idea regarding their strength, weaponry, movement of their troops on the ground, their position, etc.
Targeted Attacks: While surveillance and reconnaissance are effective ways of using drones in the military, perhaps the most familiar use of drones that we all know of that of the execution of targeted attacks via drones. The U.S particularly increased the use of drones after the 9/11 attacks, particularly to perform surveillance on localities where ground troops could not reach as well as to carry out targeted attacks against suspected militants. Using unmanned drones for targeted attacks meant that the army could easily avoid risk, and perhaps even unnecessary loss of life, through easily controlling drone attacks through a remote location and ensuring the completion of the mission.
Classification of Drones by Size
Drones come in all shapes in sizes. Basically, the size and shape of the drone automatically determine the type of task it could perform. In the military, the various sizes that are typically used include large-sized drones, medium-sized drones, small sized drones, and miniature drones, all of which perform different functions and have different capabilities.
- Large Sized Drones: These types of drones are mostly used in combat and for carrying out military attacks. Largely sized drones have the capability of flying over long distances without refueling or recharging, which is why they make for a convenient option when it comes to combat.
- Medium Sized Drones: Since drones in the military are mostly used for reconnaissance and the collection of data, medium-sized drones are usually reserved for this purpose alone.
- Small Sized Drones: These types of drones are usually used for surveillance purposes. Small sized drones make excellent surveillance drones primarily because they can be easily hidden and blend in an environment without attracting too much attention. When it comes to spying on an enemy campsite or simply finding out the position and location of their troops, small sized drones come in handy.
- Miniature Drones: These drones are designed to fit the palm of your hand and are usually used extensively within the military sector for spying and getting information on the enemy. Miniature drones are usually used for spying in close combat in order to gather information on the opponent relating to their location and weaponry, etc. And that’s not all, miniature drones made for excellent search drones. Military personnel can use these drones to scan a building or a location prior to going in order to make sure that the coast is clear. Miniature drones are also a great way to carry out search or rescue operations, particularly in the case of an injured soldier.
Top 5 Military Drones
The U.S has tons of UAVs in its arsenal. Each of these drones has a unique name, assigned by the Pentagon, and each of these drones is rated differently in terms of how threatening they are. Let’s take a look at some of the top 5 military drones in the U.S.
Developed by the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) back in 2007, the MQ-9 Reaper is the first hunter drone designed for long endurance. As the name suggests, Reaper is probably the most threatening drone in possession of the U.S military. The Reaper is a largely sized drone, with a heavy frame, and a capacity to hold 15 times more payload as compared to the early MQ-1s that were previously in use. In fact, the Reaper is known to have been used to kill an ISIS operative by the name of “Jihadi John,” who killed several prisoners on camera.
Known officially as AAI RQ-7, Shadow is another UAV used by the American military for a variety of purposes including surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition. Pentagon chooses an appropriate name for this surveillance drone since it is highly effective at silently gathering important data and relaying it to the U.S military. This drone was first deployed within the U.S army back in 2002 and now operates within the U.S army at the brigade level. Over the years, several new updated versions of the Shadow have emerged to suit the needs of the army.
3. Global Hawk:
Global Hawk, officially referred to as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, is a surveillance drone, initially designed by Ryan Aeronautical and then later acquired by Northrop Grumman. The Global Hawk has been operating as a top surveillance drone since 1998 and was used in both the Afghan and Iraq Wars. Global Hawk drone has been designed to fly at high altitudes for longer durations quite easily. It can easily fly high altitudes for greater than 30 hours. What’s more is that the Global Hawk functions perfectly well in all kinds of weather. So, even if it’s raining, you can count on Global Hawk drone to deliver high-resolution images and videos.
4. Grey Eagle:
The Grey Eagle is officially known by the military as General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle. This drone is primarily an attack drone with reconnaissance capabilities. Grey Eagle has the medium-altitude capability with the ability to fly long-distance without any refueling or recharging. This drone was used in long-range firing missions that were conducted in Iraq as well as South Korea. Grey Eagle continues to undergo design upgrades and other updates that help improve its capabilities.
Sentinel is a stealth aircraft that was developed by Lockheed Martin and is used by both the U.S Air Force and CIA. Known officially as the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, the drone has little details regarding its capabilities and function. However, it is generally known that the Sentinel aircraft is primarily a stealth aircraft and is used for reconnaissance. Sentinel was also the primary drone that was used to track the movements of Osama bin Ladin before the SEAL team made the famous raid. Interestingly, the U.S military has never officially released a photograph of the Sentinel. This has earned it the nickname “Beast of Kandahar” since it works out of the airfield in Afghanistan.